Title: A Book of Tongues (Hexslinger: Volume One)
Author: Gemma Files
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Length: 274 Pages
Category: Dark Fantasy, Historical, Alt History, Mythology
At a Glance: I loved this book and also hated it for making me love it so much.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: Two years after the Civil War, Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow has gone undercover with one of the weird West’s most dangerous outlaw gangs-the troop led by “Reverend” Asher Rook, ex-Confederate chaplain turned “hexslinger,” and his notorious lieutenant (and lover) Chess Pargeter. Morrow’s task: get close enough to map the extent of Rook’s power, then bring that knowledge back to help Professor Joachim Asbury unlock the secrets of magic itself.
Magicians, cursed by their gift to a solitary and painful existence, have never been more than a footnote in history. But Rook, driven by desperation, has a plan to shatter the natural law that prevents hexes from cooperation, and change the face of the world-a plan sealed by an unholy marriage-oath with the goddess Ixchel, mother of all hanged men. To accomplish this, he must raise her bloodthirsty pantheon from its collective grave through sacrifice, destruction, and apotheosis.
Caught between a passel of dead gods and monsters, hexes galore, Rook’s witchery, and the ruthless calculations of his own masters, Morrow’s only real hope of survival lies with the man without whom Rook cannot succeed: Chess Pargeter himself. But Morrow and Chess will have to literally ride through Hell before the truth of Chess’s fate comes clear-the doom written for him, and the entire world.
Review: I hated this book. I hated it in the same way I hated Maria McCann’s As Meat Love Salt, which is to say I loved it and also hated it for making me love it so much. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to say that about another book as long as I live, but there you go. Now, let me tell you why.
A Book of Tongues is so many things I’m not even sure where to begin. It’s part mythology, part mysticism, part gunslinger western, with a lot of aberrant magic and its fair share of disreputable characters. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a story of gods and monsters, and monsters who want nothing more than to become gods, and then there’s some necromancy thrown in for good measure—which is the crux of the story. Asher Rook will do whatever it takes to strike that all-powerful bargain. Even if it means selling out the man who loves him, and Rook selling his own soul to do it.
The setting of this novel is post-Civil War America, an alternate history where the Confederate Army still loses the war but where interference from the metaphysical realms in the form of the gods of the lost Aztec and Mayan civilizations, as well as a smattering of Native American spiritualism, wreak an unnatural havoc on the world. Chess Pargeter, son of a whore and a ruthless man, has the spark of mayhem buried inside him, a seed of untapped magic that the goddess Ixchel needs. And, as it turns out, the seed of untapped magic Asher Rook wants.
How does Ash play into all of this? I’m glad to pretend you asked. He was, at one time, the Reverend Asher Rook, serving in the Confederate Army in the same regiment as Chess. Chess took it upon himself to “service” the men with whom he also served. He is as unrepentant in his sexuality as he is cold, cruel and irascible, and the Reverend sees it as his duty to counsel Chess, to turn the pretty man from his sinful ways; which is laughable at best, impossible in light of him being described as “uniformly uncontrollable, contemptuous, loveless.” You can’t save a man who embraces chaos and disdains order, but that doesn’t stop Rook from giving it a go. Which is when the Reverend begins his fall from grace.
Sent to the gallows for a crime he confessed to but didn’t commit, Asher Rook should have died swinging from the end of that rope. He did, in fact… or would have, if not for the intervention of Ixchel, the mother of hanged men. Resurrected and made new, Rook becomes a pawn in the goddess’ pursuit of the real prize—Chess Pargeter himself. And everything from there is just one giant brain melt. This is your brain on drugs… This is your brain on A Book of Tongues. See? They look the same. The narrative does become a bit bloated in spots, there’s so much unreality parsed out in the prose, but that small niggle pales in comparison to my awe that this story lived inside the author’s head. I can see why it needed to come out—there’s a hint of insanity beneath the genius of the storyline that would have sent the author straight down the rabbit hole, I’m sure, if she hadn’t written it and the subsequent novels in the trilogy.
Tied in with the American West setting is Allan Pinkerton and his detective agency. Ed Morrow has been sent to infiltrate this band of outlaws led by the hexslinger who quotes Bible and verse to cast spells against his enemies, to spy and gauge just how powerful Asher Rook has become. Ed didn’t bargain that he’d have to travel through hell and back to do it, though. Literally. Morrow becomes an interesting cog in the machine, especially in his dealings with Chess and Rook, individually, and he’s both hero and villain, depending on whose side you’re on. He’s a character I’m interested in watching develop as I dive into the next book, that’s for sure, because he’s made some choices from which there’s no going back.
The time jumps in this story add to what I’m just going to call its hallucinogenic feel, for lack of a better description. This is a nightmares and dreamscapes sort of novel, with weird waking moments in between, and as such, let me tell you right now that there’s nothing soft or romantic about it. These are hard men living in a dangerous world. There is betrayal and there are scenes that are described in vivid language and gory detail—to quote a passage, “A million possibilities. Pick one, plant it, water well with blood. See what grows.” That’s the world these men inhabit. And while some of the dialogue is course, it fits these men and the time in which the story is set.
I loved the hexslinger elements in A Book of Tongues—the almost energy vampirism of it, and the incredible imagery the author draws with her words, and even though there are scenes that dragged on and slowed down the pacing of the story a bit, I have to say this novel gets an A+ for its originality.
You can buy A Book of Tongues here: